"A Gathering of the Tribes"
Arlington/Ashland-Greenwood Interactive Online Forum Project
Susan Martens-Baker- Arlington High School ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
Jeff Grinvalds- Ashland-Greenwood High School ( email@example.com )
Project Overview- Susan Martens-Baker
What is the project?
Our project involved collaboration between two classes of 32 total freshmen at the Arlington and Ashland-Greenwood schools through participation in an online forum hosted by the Nebraska Writing Project's website. On this forum, students shared writing, wrote feedback to each other, and participated in discussions about literature, writing, and technology.
What were our goals?
As members of the NeWP Technology Committee and Technical Research Group, we wanted to explore the possibilities for online interactions between schools and between students. We wanted to learn how best to facilitate online interactions, how to help students create online identities, how online interaction might affect writing in the classroom, and how online discussion groups could help students understand and appreciate literature.
What kinds of activities did we do?
- Our students shared several writing assignments, including short stories, persuasive speeches, poems, television reviews, song analyses, and personal essays.
- As facilitators, we often posted assignment directions or revision strategies on the forum for convenient student use, both at school and from home.
- Students exchanged revision advice and helped each other with prewriting.
- We created discussion groups called "tribes" to discuss the novel Lord of the Flies . Students gathered in these online groups to post questions, responses, and predictions for discussion.
- Students created online, interactive poetry collections.
- Students used the forum to showcase and enhance the presentation of their work, such as the "hero profiles" which included links to webpages and to photos of their heroes.
- We met in the flesh at Mahoney State Park for a Lord of the Flies -style scavenger hunt, snacks, discussion, and reflective writing about our experiences in the online forum.
What about numbers?
High school freshmen 32
Emails between teachers to organize, reflect on, and improve project activities more than we can count
Online threads (essays, topics, announcements) 131
Online posts 1315
Online views of tribal discussions 2,238
Cookies left on Gathering of the Tribes snack table 1.2 (barely)
Percentage of students who said that online discussions helped them understand the literature 80
Percentage of students who reported receiving helpful writing feedback online97
Percentage of students who said they enjoyed participating in the online forum project 100
Value of sharing an online writing community and exploring new writing frontiers priceless
What did we learn?
Where to begin? Mostly, we learned that online forums are an amazingly engaging format for students to share and discuss writing of all kinds. We also learned that using them in classrooms is a complex undertaking. Some of our revelations:
- To assure quality in writing feedback, teachers need to coach students toward using specifics as much as possible. Offering models of helpful and not-so-helpful examples is important, as are clear directions about when responses should be posted, what they should include, etc.
- Teachers need to be willing to devote significant amounts of time in the beginning to allow students the chance to become fluent with the forum's features and organization. Teachers also need significant time to coordinate cooperative activities, read student posts, and make adjustments.
- Organization of the forum structure can make a significant difference in the level of user-friendliness. For instance, asking students to post in groups, under one "topic," has the advantage of unity, but the resulting structure can quickly become unwieldy to navigate.
- Many students have extensive online "chat," instant messaging, and text messaging experience that influences their orientation to the forum. Teaching "netiquette"â??online etiquetteâ??is essential.
- As in email, online communication can be easily misinterpreted. Teachers should encourage students to be cautious about tone and to carefully consider their audiences.
- An online forum vastly increases a student's ability to share his or her work with others in shorter amounts of time. This is a tremendous bonus for revision workshops. Students also love the feeling of "publishing" so easily.
- Students can create online identities based entirely on their own writing, giving them to freedom to "speak" without fear of judgment based on appearance or other factors.
- The forum can create a opportunity for less vocal students to share their voices. In the quiet of the tapping keys, all voices can be "heard."
What did the students have to say about the project?
"I liked getting feedback from other students because they weren't saying it was good because they're your friends. I think it is a good for classroom activity because it's different and it gives you a break." -Nolan D.
"I thought the Nebraska Writing Project itself was very easy to use and it's a fun way to interact with other students. I really liked the fact that we could get feedback on projects or assignments and find out what other students thoughts were concerning our studies. Talking online helped clear up many of my questions when we were reading our novels." - Katie M.
"I think the forum was really helpful. It showed us more writing from kids our age, which gave me a lot more ideas on how I could write. It was also nice to get comments on our work from kids who don't know us so they don't "judge" our work by who we are." -Heather G.
"I really like interacting online because I feel like I'm free and can just say anything and know that you or someone else can respond to it. I also like to hear people give me feedback about my writing. It makes me feel good." -Samantha L.
Where are we going next?
Now that we know so much more about how to create engaging, supportive online communities, we definitely want to fine-tune the project for next year. For instance, we would love to read more literature selections in common, since the Lord of the Flies tribes worked so well.
We would also like to encourage more student-driven discussion threads and writing assignments, find ways to allow students a chance to get to know each other more deeply, refine the forum organization, and promote the use of this technology in more classrooms around the state.
Finally, we would love to create a way for teachers who use weblogs, online forums, and other web-based interactive writing technology to share their concerns, questions, and ideas. A NeWP technology institute, conference, or teacher forum might help provide such a venue.
If you have any questions about the project, are interested in learning more about NeWP online forums, or want to share your experience using online forums in writing classrooms, please feel free to contact us!
End of the Year Summary- Jeff Grinvalds
I began this project with a simple question: How can I use technology to improve student writing in my classroom? As an avid user of the internet and online forums, I believe that the internet offers a way to bring students together using a virtual community space that can ultimately help them improve their writing and communication skills. The promise of using forum technology in the classroom is also a way to allow students to improve and develop their computer skills in a rich writing environment.
During the 2005-2006 school year, I teamed up with Susan Martens-Baker of Arlington in an attempt to bring our students together to create a virtual community between Ashland-Greenwood and Arlington students. We met early in the year to develop a rough sketch of what we wanted this space to look like. We decided on two distinct and separate forums for our distinct and separate classes. We would have our junior level students meet in on space, and our freshmen meet in another. I also wanted a forum for my A-Town Authors Club and we agree that it would be good to include an "Open Mic" forum where students would be allowed to have casual conversation with one another. Our hope was that by working together, we would offer students a new way to approach the concept of audience in their writing. They would also have to develop and improve their group response techniques as they engaged students from another school online.
Throughout the year, we tried different methods of having our juniors share their writing. One difficulty we encountered was teaching students to format text for easier reading on these forums. The forum space does not allow for tabs or other simple formatting techniques, so many students would simply copy and paste text into one large block of writing making it difficult to read. Another challenge was figuring out the best way to open a dialogue on a text. After reviewing much of the discourse that went on, the best method seems to be having one student begin a thread with a piece of writing that she would like comments on, while other students read and respond directly to the text. Another alternative was to create writing group threads where multiple students attempted to share texts in one thread, but this created confusion in the responses. It was hard to tell who was responding to whom. A major lesson we learned was to preteach expectations and use specific examples. While many students have experience communicating online, their experiences seemed to lead to less formal "chatty" responses using shorthand lingo (lol, u, etc.) rather than developed and engaging feedback. The more specific we were about what type of feedback we wanted them to give, the better the feedback was.
The freshman forum took off when we read Lord of the Flies together. Both my students and Susan's students read this novel at roughly the same pace and then used the forum to discuss it. We chose two of our freshmen classes to form virtual tribes using the forum space. In these color-coded "tribes", students were able to discuss the novel. Both Susan and I agreed that this was a very successful way for students to engage one another using the NeWP forum space. The discussions were lively, and at the end of the year we brought our "tribes" together for a real-life meeting at Mahoney state park. Bringing together these students who had met in a virtual space was a strange and wonderful experience. I believe it would actually be more beneficial to bring them together at the beginning of the online experience because many of them wanted to attach a face to the virtual prescence they encountered online. Although most of my students were comfortable posting and sharing using the NeWP forum, many wanted to "see" the people they were communicating with.
Although the final outcome of how much this forum technology impacted my students' writing, I am hopeful in what the NeWP forums have to offer. I will be able to take the ideas that sprouted this year, and apply them in the years to come to help students engage one another through virtual spaces, and ultimately help them to become stronger writers and communicators.
Blue Tribe Shares
Red Tribe Gathers
Green Tribe Finds They have something in Common
Red Tribe Bonds
Green Tribe Gathers
Ashland and Arlington Students check their lists to see what they need to find